Adam Brinklow, EDGE, April 24th, 2017
"Temple" takes us back to the days of Occupy Wall Street at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre, less than five miles from where a police raid hospitalized Iraq War vet Scott Olsen in Oakland, an incident this play references just a few minutes in.
But "Temple" by UK playwright Steve Waters is actually about Occupy London, where protesters camped for weeks at St Paul's Cathedral, closing it and creating a crisis of conscience (or lack of conscience, perhaps) for the Anglican Church.
Paul Whitworth is Dean of the church, as besieged as the building itself, coming to work every day and reciting prayers to an empty room before retreating to his office, a gorgeous Richard Olmsted set that communicates both the gravity of the position and its isolation.
"Temple" keeps Whitworth onstage for the entirety of the show, and it's hard not to read his fidgety, afflicted performance as an exasperated critique of the entire institution.
Even his cell phone is years out of date (nice touch), and while society comes apart beneath his window daily, he's mostly concerned with his next sermon.
Most of the church wants to remove the protesters, but Mike Ryan (who played the billionaire boss in "The Hard Problem" at ACT last year) as the Chancellor argues for the more liberal wing who think if anything they all ought to be out there arm in arm with the protesters.
It seems that the argument between the two men would be the focus of the play, but actually, Ryan doesn't really enter the action until late in the game. Maybe it's hard to stage a good debate between a revolutionary on the one hand and someone who really can't make up his mind on the other.
J. Michael Flynn is the Bishop of London (his first role at Aurora in 18 years), a cagey and politically savvy figure more in tune with public relations than heavenly dispatches.
Sylvia Burboeck is a luckless assistant at her first day on the job, a somewhat thin and not very satisfying role that does at least pull off one good trick by seeming to set up a contrived conclusion and then faking out of it several times.
And the all-star of the cast is Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as an unsettlingly aggressive lawyer whose casual ruthlessness shocks and challenges the Dean in the play's best scene, another exchange that could have lasted the entire 97 minutes but sadly doesn't.
Director Tom Ross gives "Temple" an atmosphere of general breathlessness and keeps the action and the dialogue constantly humming with scenes that are always pleasing to the ear, with a rhythm that sometimes makes you imagine the show is written in verse.
Since by and large not a lot happens here, it's a little weird. Or rather, a lot happens, but very slowly, and then by the time it's over you may not quite have caught it.
Although the conflict is ostensibly Whitworth's crisis, we spend relatively little time addressing his struggle directly. Maybe this is because his position is a bit weak to begin with: He's fine with driving out Occupy -- would prefer it, really -- but is simply scared of the possibility that someone will get hurt.
Or maybe the idea is that in a play based on real and recent events there's rarely time or occasion for big, showy moments of crisis; that characters must grapple with their quandaries against a backdrop of everyday affairs, just as we all do.
In either case, when all is said and done, "Temple" gives the impression that a more provocative play happened somewhere offstage.
This most recent staging of a 2015 play does get a little extra push from more current events though, as we watch it while contemplating the carnage of America and England's recent political upheavals and await the outcome of France's now.
Seeing "Temple" and particularly Whitworth's embattled posture today and remembering the events of five years ago, you can't help but wonder if modern revolutions wouldn't be better off if only they had some institution of real integrity to challenge.
"Temple" plays through May 14 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., in Berkeley. For tickets and information, call 510-843-4822.